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Nurses: Tuition Fees

Volume 787: debated on Wednesday 29 November 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will write off the tuition fees of nurses who spend a number of years working in the NHS or related public care services.

My Lords, there are currently no plans in place to write off tuition fee loans for nurses who take up work in the NHS. Substantial financial support is available for nurses in training. With the increase in the student loan repayment threshold introduced by the Department for Education, from April 2018 a newly qualified nurse will not pay back their loan on earnings up to £25,000 a year.

My Lords, when we have a shortage of 40,000 nurses, when the Government’s introduction of tuition fees has resulted in fewer nurses entering training, and on the very day it is announced that we are having to import 5,500 nurses from India, is it not crucial that we incentivise everything we can to get British students into nursing? Would my proposal about working in the NHS not help that?

My Lords, nurse training places have been discussed a number of times in this House. I am sure noble Lords will be keen to know that, while there has been a small percentage drop-off in places year on year, the numbers recruited this year are comparable to 2014-15. That is common with the introduction of tuition fees for other courses and we would expect it to rebound. In the long run, the intention is to grow more of our own nurses and to recruit from the United Kingdom, which is why there will be an increase of 25% in the number of clinically funded training places for nurses—5,000 extra—from 2018-19 onwards.

Can my noble friend indicate what percentage of the borrowing by student nurses under the student loans scheme will be paid back at the point when it is written off after 30 years? If so, would it not be better to do this earlier in their careers, rather than at the end of them?

My noble friend is quite right to point out that student debt is forgiven after 30 years. The point of that is to ensure there is an equitable system, where those who earn more pay back more over the course of their working lives. It is important to point out that, with the new threshold moving up to £25,000, a nurse earning £26,000 in band 5 of the Agenda for Change pay scale would pay back £7.50 of that loan per calendar month.

My Lords, with the NHS reporting that 96% of hospitals are currently failing to meet their planned number of registered nurses, and UCAS reporting a decline in student nurse applications, as the noble Lord mentioned, as well as the further news that one in four post-qualifying nurses leave in their first year, what are the Government proposing to do to change the problem of recruiting new nurses, including returning to bursaries and abolishing tuition fees altogether? Specifically, what are the Government doing right now to attract nurses into our hospitals?

It is important to point out that there are 10,000 more nurses on wards than there were seven years ago. One of the things that we are trying to do is encourage nurses to return to practice—3,000 of those nurses have been on the return to practice programme. In regard to attracting them to hospitals, the main thing is that we need to train more nurses to fill those places so that we fill the demand that we know that we have from a growing and ageing population. That is why there are going to be 5,000 more funded nursing training places from 2018 onwards.

My Lords, is it not necessary to offer the most attractive terms to get more nurses into training? Will the Minister reflect on the very helpful suggestion made by the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, that there is a possibility that a fair number of these people will never repay the full amount? Will he tell the House what the estimated write-off is of the repayments that will apply to nurses? If it is a high figure, will he reflect on the answer that he gave to the noble Lord?

I shall certainly write to my noble friend, and indeed all noble Lords, about the proportion of the write-off. Let us remember, however, why the student loans system exists. It exists because those people who earn enough over the course of their working lives end up paying more than those who do not. Therefore, if somebody has gone into nursing but has then gone on to work in another profession, earning more money and being able to pay it off, it is equitable that they pay it off. That was the policy of the Labour Government, and it has been adopted by the Conservative Government precisely on the point of equity. It is only right that the loan is written off for those who have not earned enough but, for those who have earned enough, that they pay it off.

I obviously have not been clear enough; I thought that I had. The answer to that is that we are not considering that at the moment.

My noble friend is explaining the policy very eloquently, but surely he ought to take into account the point raised by my noble friend Lord Forsyth. The problem is that the way the scheme works disincentivises people from entering occupations that are extremely socially desirable and much needed by the country precisely because they are going to be loaded with debt. Although they do not in the end pay it off, it bears very heavily on them during their working lives.

The system that we have means that the people who benefit most from higher education are those who pay for their higher education and, in doing so, they subsidise those who go into the professions that my noble friend has mentioned, which are extremely worth while but might not be that well paid.

My Lords, the Health Foundation research has shown that the change in nurse training funding arrangements in England has led to a fall in student numbers, rather than the Government’s promised increase. One of the most alarming statistics shows a 31% shortfall in the number of applicants aged 30 and over, just the group with the background and experience the NHS needs, many of whom are care workers with hands-on experience wishing to develop their skills by becoming qualified nurses. Does the Minister agree that these are the very people whom nursing needs, but for whom taking on a huge debt, often at a time of heavy financial commitment, seems an impossible hurdle? Does this not all underline the need for urgent reinstatement of nurse bursaries?

I think that the figure on shortfalls that the noble Baroness has given is not right. If one looks at the UCAS data, it shows, as I said, a small drop of around 6%, but the numbers going into training are comparable to 2014-15. She is quite right about the need for additional financial support, and there is £1,000 available for childcare support for those who need it, as well as exceptional support funds of up to £3,000.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that there was a great disincentive for people to enter nursing when it was decided that it was necessary to have university-level academic education to do it? The SENs—the state enrolled nurses—were abolished. Does he think that the apprenticeship scheme, which I understand is put forward all the time as being the replacement for that, is really working well, or is there a need to bring back that middle layer of nurses who cannot get five A-levels but can nevertheless be excellent nurses?

My noble friend makes an important point. It is precisely to, if you like, recreate that route into nursing that the nursing apprenticeship and nursing associate positions have been created, and the numbers are increasing.